William Wordsworth’s “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” is one of the frequently discussed literary works in the historical writings on the Age of Revolution. One can easily see why: ostensibly making a hero of Toussaint Louverture, the most prominent revolutionary during the Haitian revolution, the poem is one of the few literary representations of the revolution in Western literature and one of the fewer positive ones. While the poem, at surface, expresses Wordsworth’s admiration for a black hero, critics like Cora Kaplan (in the article we read last semester) have drawn attention to complexity of the poem, questioning the heroic quality of Toussaint in it. Perhaps, the fact that Toussaint is represented as a ‘hero,’ they suggest, is less important than the way in which he is represented as such. Along this line of investigation, in this post, I shall address some of the peculiarities of Wordsworth’s poetic representation of Toussaint, by reading it as a specific instance of a literary genre—that is, as an elegy. (To explain generic characteristics of “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” is one of the aims of my final project, which deals with the issues of representation and language in the Age of Revolution. Hence, I do more than welcome any thoughts or comments on this post.)
To begin with, let me quote the whole sonnet, as it was published in 1807:
Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.
When one reads the poem as an elegy, one of its striking peculiarities is that the speaker laments over a person who is not yet dead but dying. Perhaps it might not seem so odd at the factual level. Wordsworth first published the poem in The Morning Post on February 2, 1803, probably having read the news that Toussaint had been imprisoned in the Fort de Joux since June, 1802, and Toussaint died two months after the poem appeared in the newspaper. Still, it seems to me quite an unusual choice that Wordsworth highlights the hero’s vulnerability by describing the ‘present’ moments of dying, rather than, for example, his past acts of heroism. It seems all the more peculiar because Wordsworth does so both by relying on the elegy tradition and appropriating it in his own way.
That is, Wordsworth uses figures and rhetoric peculiar to elegies with a twist in representing Toussaint. One of those twists is, as I said, his choice to mourn anticipated death. To mourn the death to come seems not only unusual in the elegy tradition—I do not know any precedent to it—but also is presented as unusual in the poem, especially by Wordsworth’s eccentric use of the sonnet form. The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet which consists of two quatrains (that is, two four-line sections) and two tercets (two three-line sections) and each section in the sonnet usually functions as a unit of meaning, similar to paragraphs in prose. Yet Wordsworth betrays the reader’s expectations by making it unclear in the first quatrain whether Toussaint is dead or not, whether he hears the maid’s song, or lies dead alone in the den. Wordsworth, in other words, holds back the information that the reader desires to know, in order to register effectively Toussaint’s being on the verge of death.
The fact that Wordsworth mourns for a dying person, rather than a dead one, is important because it enables him to express his paradoxical wish for Toussaint’s recovery. Because Toussaint isn’t dead yet, Wordsworth could dearly wish him not to die: “die not” (line 6); “Live, and take comfort” (line 9). Again, it seems peculiar that Wordsworth asks the dying hero not to die. Compare, for example, the injunctions in Milton’s “Lycidas,” where he requests shepherds not to grieve for his dear friend’s death: “Weep no more, woeful Shepherds, weep no more.” Similarly using imperatives, Wordsworth, however, makes an impossible demand that a dying person stop dying. Wordsworth’s wish is thus not just wishful but almost paradoxical in that he acknowledges the impossibility of his demand. In asking a question, “where and when / Wilt thou find patience?” (lines 5-6), for instance, he suggests that Toussaint will soon find patience through death, as the ‘patience’ here means something close to the “calm, self-possessed waiting” (Oxford English Dictionary 1.c.), associated with martyrdom in Luke 21:19. Wordsworth’s presentiment of Toussaint’s death, moreover, is underscored by the word that follows this rhetorical question, “Yet” (line 6). By putting the contrastive conjunction before voicing his wish for Toussaint’s recovery (“Yet die not”), Wordsworth betrays his sense that, as he has all along expected, Toussaint would not improve in the end. Indeed, the paradox in Wordsworth’s wish is stated clearly after a few lines, when he speaks to Toussaint thus: “Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,/ Live and take comfort” (lines 8).
Why, then, does Wordsworth express those futile wishes? Of course, they are expressions of his grief. In addition, I suggest that, in mourning Toussaint in such a particular way, Wordsworth attempts to make Toussaint a symbol of republican virtues or of “love, and Man’s unconquerable mind” (line 14). It is worth noting how Wordsworth reformulates his demand, “die not”: “do thou/ Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow” (lines 6-7). What Wordsworth wishes for here is not so much Toussaint’s composure as the appearance of it. In other words, his insistence on taking a cheerful posture can be taken as an expression of his wish for posterity to remember Toussaint as such, that is, as embodiment of fortitude. Every act of mourning is directed to the living, not the dead, but it is particularly true in the poem. The poem is, in other words, about how one should remember Toussaint Louverture . Even nature will remember him, rather than merely bewailing his death (as it is natural in a pastoral elegy): “There’s not a breathing of the common wind/ That will forget thee” (lines 11-12). Yet, if one question is answered at this point, a series of questions follow: why does he write an elegy so as to make Toussaint a symbol? Why does he make it explicit that he makes him an embodiment of a certain value? Why does he mourn so conspicuously?